The lights went down on the black-curtained stage, obscuring everything but magician Penn Jillette and his wife, Emily. They sat in chairs at tables with three-ring binders and read a lifetime of correspondence to one another, starting with childhood party invitations from the 1930s.
This was the February 10 debut of A.R. Gurney’s Broadway play Love Letters in actor/producer Mark Shunock’s new off-Strip venue, the Space. The production is a classic but also a little bit of a gimmick, one enhanced by the choice to feature one of five Las Vegas entertainment power couples on each night of the five-show run.
Love Letters is one of those scaled-back endeavors in which everything gets scraped away except the authenticity of emotion. The actors never leave their chairs or even really look at each other. And when it works, it really works. The 1988 play was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. With no set pieces, music or movement to distract, Love Letters was an ambitious pick for a venue’s maiden theatrical voyage.
In an enthusiastic introduction, Shunock told the audience that the performers had only done one read-through or rehearsal of the play. Apparently, this was to be a grand experiment. And the three-quarters-full house seemed up for anything.
Penn—Strip headliner, TV personality and podcaster extraordinaire—effortlessly engaged the audience. After the first bit, during which he sounded like his usual self, Penn morphed into a stiff and vulnerable U.S. senator. His wife Emily, who had the (mis)fortune of acting next to a world-class performer, took longer to adjust, or perhaps it just appeared that way. By the second act, she found her character, an artsy, damaged heiress. With more prep time, she might have caught up with her husband before the audience arrived. Or maybe there’s a reason Penn’s longtime stage partner doesn’t speak. (Disclaimer: Having only seen the first show, I can’t comment on the others.)
Shunock has had great success bringing Strip entertainers into his projects. The former Rock of Ages star created the biweekly charity revue Mondays Dark, which features a rotating cast of Vegas celebrities. My guess is that Shunock made a compromise. He wanted to use Strip entertainers in his theatrical production, which is terrific. I love the idea of bridging the divide between Strip entertainment and local theater. But in order to attract busy performers, he couldn’t ask too much of them. In this case, Shunock might have asked a little more. Two rehearsals, perhaps?